A police car is parked in front of the main entrance to Berkeley High School as students walk by.
A police car outside Berkeley High School. File photo: Tracey Taylor

The Berkeley school board passed a new policy last month that aims to limit when law enforcement can question students on school grounds and set guidelines for minimizing harm.

The policy adds language stating that police can only interview students on campus if they have been “implicated in a crime” that happened “on school premises.”

If police do have to come on campus, the policy states, they should work with administrators to make their presence less disruptive and interview students out of the view of their peers. Parents should also be given a reasonable opportunity to be present for the police interview. 

Students should only be removed by law enforcement from school premises “when no alternative means or locations are available,” the policy states. 

A previous version of the policy said law enforcement could interview and question students on school grounds without specifying the circumstances. It also gave police more leeway to determine when it would be appropriate to remove a student from school grounds.

Berkeley police have not responded to questions about how the policy might impact its behavior. The department’s own policies don’t give much guidance around how law enforcement officers should treat students on school grounds. In general, a small youth services team is responsible for investigating crimes that occur on school campuses, as well as cases of abuse and neglect. 

In general, Babitt said the police rarely make arrests on school campuses. The police department’s policy manual does not include guidance on when they should come on campus to investigate a crime. 

The overall goal of the school district’s new policy is, as it states, to recognize the “serious emotional impact” that law enforcement can have on young people. The policy is not intended to address times when a student presents an active threat to their peers or school staff.

“Kids are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but it doesn’t always appear that way when you just come and arrest someone,” said School Board President Laura Babitt.

The school board worked with the Berkeley Police Department to develop this policy after a student brought an incident to the attention of the board in the spring. Babitt said BPD very rarely comes to school campuses to question students.

On March 30, Sir-Remy Maldonaldo Jr., a student in Berkeley Independent Study, said he saw police officers arrest a student at Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s alternative high school, which shares a campus with the independent study program. 

(BPD didn’t respond to questions about whether a student was arrested that day.)

Maldonaldo told the school board that the incident troubled him. “Frankly, I felt unsafe,” he said. “Not because of the young man, but because of the confusion of seeing five or six police officers escorting an unarmed high schooler off campus. … As a fellow young Black man, I wondered if that could be me.”

In California, Native American and Black students and students with disabilities are three times more likely to be arrested at school than white students, according to an ACLU study.

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights dates back to 2017. At that time in Berkeley, 59% of students referred to the police were Black, though they made up 16% of the student body.

Referrals to law enforcement are different from the incident described by Maldonaldo, who said police were investigating a crime that occurred off-campus, not responding to a call by school district staff.

“My son and ALL of the children present on campus were traumatized that day by BPD’s brash misconduct,” Tiara Madonaldo wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “We are prayerful that BPD will cease and desist in their use of unnecessary force and misappropriation of tax dollars executing menial arrests on school campuses.”

Berkeleyside public safety reporter Alex N. Gecan contributed reporting to this story.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...